Filmmaker Billy Luther makes his narrative feature debut at SXSW on Saturday with “Frybead Face and Me,” executive produced by Taika Waititi. Inspired by his childhood, the film follows a young boy, Benny (Keir Tallman), who has to spend the summer with his grandma on the reservation.
Luther, whose past work includes the documentary “Miss Navajo” and AMC’s “Dark Winds,” feels Benny’s story of learning about rez life and bonding with his cousin Frybread (Charley Hogan) has universal appeal in that it’s ultimately about being somewhere new and feeling alone.
“You don’t have to be Native to connect to the story because everyone remembers being dropped off somewhere, and the story brings that familiarity,” Luther says.
Still, it was incredibly important to Luther to cast Navajo actors (he’s from the Navajo, Hopi and Laguna Pueblo tribes), a process that was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, he eventually found his stars in Tallman and Hogan, who both make their acting debuts in the film.
Below, Luther speaks with Variety about casting via Zoom, his path to SXSW and the importance of Native representation in Hollywood.
This is a personal story — it’s yours, but it’s a universal one at the same time. How did you share those elements while finding balance?
As a kid, I was very perceptive. I listened in on a lot of things, including phone conversations with parents and adults. I would study people’s gestures and mannerisms, and the way they spoke. I have a good memory. And there’s a scene in the film with a fork as Benny sits down to eat. Whenever we would have guests or somebody come into our house, there was always one fork that didn’t fit into the rest of my mom’s cutlery, and wherever they were sitting, I would put that fork there. It was called the visitor’s fork.
Those are just little elements that you pull from, and so I pulled from a lot including my experience of going to the rez and being cut off with no electricity, running water and indoor plumbing. That was my childhood. Meanwhile, everyone’s back in San Diego, watching MTV and going to concerts. But as a kid, you don’t necessarily think about how lucky you are to be spending time with your relatives, you just want to get back. I wanted to tell all of that in this interesting and entertaining story, and those elements of people’s experiences can help connect to it. You don’t have to be Native to connect to the story because everyone remembers being dropped off somewhere, and the story brings that familiarity.
What was the casting process like, especially with Keir and Charley as this is both of their acting debuts?
I worked with Angelique Midthunder ( “Rutherford Falls”), and she had come out of casting the first season of “Reservation Dogs’” so she had this pool of young talent. We looked at a lot of different tribes, but ultimately, these kids had to be Navajo, and they were great.
We cast this during the peak of the pandemic, so it was over Zoom, and that was difficult in reading their screen chemistry. On Zoom, it’s not an actor’s friend, you need physical connection and you need to play off of someone, so that was a huge challenge. Charley ended up being the first person we cast. She read, and I felt ‘That’s Frybread.’ She was who I thought the character was.
With Keir, I was drawn to this innocence. He was living in Phoenix at the time and on his family’s rez, so he understood those things and he would always tell me these stories about his experiences.
Going from Zoom to set, were you surprised at their dynamic and how well they played against one another?
The first time we all met, it was the three of us, and I put the script aside and just wanted to hang out and get to know them.
The cinematography captures the isolation of rez life as well as all the natural light. What were those conversations like?
Peter Simonite was a great cinematographer. We talked about the isolation and how lonely it was for me as a kid, and how once the sun went down, you couldn’t just turn on a light. Those were my memories, so capturing both of those things was important. We talked about the landscape of the rez, how it goes from sunny to cloudy and how the sunsets are beautiful. That’s where my documentary experience came in handy, to be able to reflect that.
As for the characters, we are in grandma’s world. I told Peter that we were going to be following her and shooting her documentary style. Those scenes needed to be loose with this nice flow, so when you watch her, there’s a feeling that we’re observing her.
Without revealing anything, there’s a great emotional scene with Benny in the kitchen — was that challenging to shoot?
It was. How do you get a kid to react to that emotion? So we talked to him about it, and Martin Sensmeier — who has worked on so many films and with many great directors — had conversations with him, too. Charley also reacted to the energy in the room and what Uncle Marvin was saying. I didn’t have to press that much because he comes from a single-family home and lives with his mom.
That scene in the film was the last take, and it was incredible. Everyone in the room, right down to the camera guys said, “Woah!” We all wanted to protect him because it was vulnerable for him.
What does it mean to you to have premiered this at SXSW, in terms of representation?
I intended to tell a truthful and honest story. I couldn’t have made this film in my 20s. I needed to experience life, have children and have a healed relationship with my family. I also wanted my younger cousins and younger Natives to see this.
When you watch a lot of Native films, there is a lot of poverty or torture porn. I’m glad we’re finally coming out of those and there are filmmakers and storytellers out there, telling stories with humor. There is hopefulness and resiliency in our community and among our storytellers.